Oregon advocates of stringent land-use planning are using federal and other public funds to promote even stronger rules than Oregonians face today in order to force more and more people to live within the state's increasingly congested urban-growth boundaries and discourage both farming and development of rural areas. These advocates have recently spend hundreds of thousands of dollars of mostly public funds to distribute a propaganda flyer to 459,000 households in Oregon. Despite the fact that legitimate alternative viewpoints are held by many Oregonians, these views are not considered by the central-planning advocates.
Oregon, which already has the nation's most draconian land-use planning system, can expect the level of central planning to ratchet upward in the next decade or so. At least, that is the conclusion to be reached from Willamette Chronicle, a newspaper insert that was distributed to 459,000 households in Oregon's Willamette Valley on April 4. The insert can also be downloaded.
Extending from Eugene to Portland, the Willamette Valley contains 12 percent of the state's land area but 70 percent of its people. Currently, 85 percent of the 2.3 million residents in the valley live within the urban-growth boundaries of the various cities and towns in the valley.
Willamette Chronicle reports that the valley's population is expected to grow from 2.3 million to 4.0 million people in the next fifty years. The 8-page newspaper-sized insert warns that this population increase will cause huge increases in congestion, threaten agricultural production, and wreak havoc with natural ecosystems unless the new people are largely confined within the urban-growth boundaries.
Willamette Chronicle was published by the Willamette Valley Livability Forum, a land-use planning advocacy group. While the group ostensibly was started by Oregon's Governor John Kitzhaber, in fact it is really inspired and promoted by 1000 Friends of Oregon. 1000 Friends stacked the membership of the group, raised funds for the group, and directed its agenda. Most of the foundations that fund the Forum also fund 1000 Friends, and 1000 Friends is even listed as one of the funders.
Regardless of who is behind the group, its proposals will be recognized by anyone familiar with smart growth: higher densities and rail transit. Specifically, Willamette Chronicle calls for increasing the share of multi-family housing by 10 percent and reducing single-family lot sizes by an unspecified amount.
While a 10-percent increase in multi-family may sound modest, the nationwide trend is for an increase in single-family housing as people can afford to move out of apartments. People also prefer larger lots and studies show that they consider large backyards to be an important part of open space. By centrally directing reduced single-family housing and reduced lot sizes, planning advocates are telling future generations that they will not be as wealthy as the present.
As applied to Portland, this prescription has required increased taxes and reduced urban services to pay for subsidies to light rail and unmarketable high-density housing. But Willamette Chronicle contains the usual claim that higher densities will reduce urban-service costs.
This claim overlooks an important factor that Portland has discovered: It costs a lot of money to get people to live in ways that they don't want to live. Even with one of the nation's least affordable single-family housing markets and heavy subsidies to density, the high-density housing built in Portland in recent years has double-digit vacancy rates.
Willamette Chronicle presents three alternatives for how to cope with 1.7 million more people in the valley. One is based on existing plans, one is called the "development" alternative, and the third is called the "conservation" alternative.
The so-called development alternative is described as "let private property rights and short-term market forces call the shots." In other words, it is really the freedom-of-choice alternative. The publication uses "short-term economic gain" as a euphemism for freedom of choice.
The conservation alternative is similar to the existing plans but with added protection for salmon and native ecosystems. The alternative attempts to force a slightly higher percentage of people to live within urban-growth boundaries (UGBs).
The table below compares the number of acres within urban-growth boundaries, the percentage of Willamette Valley residents who will live within those boundaries, and the number of acres in agricultural production in 1990 and 2050 under each of the three alternatives. The freedom-of-choice alternative has the high number of acres in urban-growth boundaries.
Acres % people Agriculture % of Valley in UGB in UGB Acres Urbanized 1990 444,000 85% 1,400,000 5.92% 1. Current plans 495,000 93% 1,367,000 6.60% 2. Freedom* 573,000 87% 1,219,000 7.64% 3. Conservation 498,000 94% 1,158,000 6.64%
* The Chronicle calls this the development alternative.
The publication warns that the 129,000 acres added to the growth boundaries by the freedom-of-choice alternative is "more than 124,000 football fields." I wonder how many people confuse "football fields" with football stadiums (which are many times larger than fields).
A more realistic comparison is the percentage of the Willamette Valley that is urbanized under each alternative. The valley contains around 7.5 million acres, so the 444,000 acres now inside of urban-growth boundaries makes up less than 6 percent of the valley. Despite a 74-percent increase in population, the freedom-of-choice alternative boosts this to only about 7.6 percent, just 1 percent more than the conservation alternative. This one percent is hardly a threat to Oregon's agricultural production or wildlife habitat.
Of the three 2050 alternatives, the freedom-of-choice alternative also has the most people living outside of urban-growth boundaries. Willamette Chronicle warns that the increase in rural homes threatens agricultural land and wildlife habitat.
Only 20 percent of the Willamette Valley is considered agricultural, so there is plenty of room for people to live in rural areas without taking agricultural lands out of production. But agricultural simply isn't that important in most of the valley. As Willamette Chronicle notes, "Less than 10 percent of Valley farms produce three-fourths of the agricultural sales."
However, the spin that the Chronicle puts on this is that "The number of hobby farms is growing." "Hobby farmers" is the planners' derisive term for people who live in rural areas without having primarily rural occupations. Oregon planners have been on a crusade against this evil for more than a decade.
In 1993, the state Land Conservation and Development Commission passed a rule forbidding owners of farm land from building houses on their land unless they owned 160 acres of land AND earned at least $80,000 per year actually farming that land ($40,000 in the case of low-productivity farm lands, which are mostly outside the Willamette Valley).
"Before we started using this test, lawyers, doctors and others not really farming were building houses in farm zones," says Richard Benner, the former 1000 Friends attorney who now directs the state Department of Land Conservation and Development. Benner brags that, since the new rule was put into effect, only about 110 permits for new homes on farm land have been granted per year.
Curiously, the alternative that takes the most agricultural land out of production is not the development alternative but the conservation alternative. This alternative sets aside a couple of hundred thousand acres of land for "native fish and wildlife habitat." The publication does not say whether farmers will be compensated for their contribution to wildlife, but based on past experience in Oregon such compensation is unlikely.
Willamette Chronicle also proposes to spend billions of transportation dollars on light rail, including projects that have been rejected by voters several times, and commuter rail. It claims studies show that this will reduce congestion but none of these studies have yet been posted on the web for review.
The transportation study that supports this claim was funded by the Federal Highway Administration under section 1221 of the 1998 Transportation Efficiency Act (the reauthorization of ISTEA). This section directs the Department of Transportation to provide funds for transportation studies to non-profit organizations as well as local governments. Via the Willamette Valley Livability Forum, 1000 Friends successfully lobbied for and directed this transportation funding and study.
The Chronicle also proposes "boosting the cost of driving" using "a mileage tax." It does not mention congestion pricing, the only tool which can really reduce congestion, probably because congestion reduction is not the true goal.
One of the most interesting things about Willamette Chronicle is how it was distributed. The Livability Forum printed 459,000 copies and distributed them to Willamette Valley households as inserts in the Portland Oregonian, Salem Statesman Journal, Albany Democrat-Herald, Corvallis Gazette-Times, and the Eugene Register-Guard.
I called various sources to get an idea of how much this cost. Printing the 459,000 copies probably cost around $30,000. But distributing them with the newspapers cost far more. The Oregonian would charge $232,000 to distribute them in just the Portland area, more for its papers delivered to the rest of the Willamette Valley. When the other papers are added, the total cost probably came to at least a third of a million dollars.
By comparison, buying a single full-page political ad in the Oregonian costs just $8,300. The eight pages of the Willamette Chronicle would have cost just $66,400 -- and that includes both printing and graphics design! When the other papers are included, the total cost probably would have been a quarter to a third of the cost of inserts.
Of course, cost doesn't count when it is paid for by the government. The Willamette Chronicle says that its smart-growth propaganda was paid for by "Lane Council of Governments, Federal Highway Administration, 1000 Friends of Oregon, Pacific Northwest Ecosystem Research Consortium, Defenders of Wildlife, and Surdna Foundation." The Lane Council of Governments (which covers the Eugene-Springfield area) paid for graphic design and layout; the Federal Highway Administration probably paid for most of the printing and distribution costs.
On April 26, the Willamette Valley Livability Forum will hold a conference in Corvallis called "Choices for the Future." Despite the huge amount of public money going into this program, conference organizers have made little attempt to get a broad range of public or expert opinion at the conference.
At least some of the conference sponsors probably think of themselves as working in "the public interest." Yet Oregonians have at least three very different views towards land-use planning. First are those who support the current system, led by 1000 Friends. Second are the no-growth/slow-growth advocates, led by Andy Kerr of Alternatives to Growth Oregon. Third are the free-market advocates, led by John Charles of the Cascade Policy Institute.
The no-growth/slow-growth view was not even considered as an alternative by the Forum. Neither Kerr nor Charles will be making presentations at the Corvallis conference. Instead, the conference agenda indicates that the "choices" will be presented exclusively by 1000 Friends of Oregon and its allies.
"Conference sponsors hope to inspire a network of citizens who will commit time and effort" to the planners' political goals. The Federal Highway Administration is prominently listed as one of the main sponsors of this politically driven conference.
While Corvallis means "the heart of the valley," it is more than 80 miles from most of the residents in the Willamette Valley. Since the conference will be held on a Thursday, it automatically excludes most working people except, of course, planners and government officials. Thus, the conference is designed to be as exclusive, rather than inclusive, as possible.
Free-market advocates in Oregon and elsewhere should: